‘This Poison Heart’ – Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart is the first in what promises to be a most exciting series. I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and am genuinely wondering what will happen next.
Our focus for this story is Briseis, a character with a most unusual talent. She has an affinity with plants and is able to bring anything back to life and help it bloom. This skill comes in very handy in the florists her mums run, but the fact she has seemingly no reaction to poisonous plants suggests there’s more to this than Bri realises.
Introducing us to Bri’s talents early on is a great way to get our attention, but her lack of knowledge about what she can do means many of our questions are not answered. We are given time to get to know Bri and her mums. Their relationship and interactions are warm and caring, and spending time with them means we genuinely care when we learn of the financial pressures they are under.
Bri is adopted, and when she is told that an aunt has bequeathed her an estate just outside New York we – like Bri – have questions. They travel to what can only be described as a spooky mansion, to find over-run vegetation, mysterious people hanging round their property and a run-down apothecary filled with strange ingredients. People turn up requesting help, and it is soon obvious there is more to this arrangement than we might expect.
Naturally curious, Bri wants to find out more about her family. She unearths letters from her aunt and learns that she appears to have immunity to deadly poisons. There is talk of her lineage being traced back to the ancient Greeks, and though this would be exciting enough…there’s more.
Bri meets all manner of people in her new town. Her position lends her some respect, but it also brings great danger. For what is clear is Bri’s natural family have been guarding a great secret…something that some will stop at nothing to learn.
From the beginning I found myself really caught up in this. I loved Bri and her characterisation. The introduction to mythology lent an interesting element to the story, and there are a few characters that definitely pique your interest as you try to figure out their link to Bri and the repercussions for any friendship developing.
My only criticism of the book was how the pace picked up in the last quarter and was then relentless. We had a lot of info thrown at us, and – on occasion – it didn’t feel as if it made sense. The dramatic end to this book was, naturally, not an end at all and that is highly frustrating…but a very good incentive to have me racing to pick up book two when I can.

‘The Taking of Jake Livingston’ – Ryan Douglass


Jake Livingston is one of the only black kids in his school. The other is his popular older brother. Jake is reserved, finds it hard to interact with others and when a lot of your time is spent seeing dead people I imagine it’s hard to deal with the real world. This alone would make Jake’s high school experience a challenge, but Jake is also having to come to terms with being gay, and when we later learn about how his now-absent father responded to this years earlier his reticence is understandable.
From the outset we were encouraged to get into Jake’s head and try to understand his experience. We watch the micro aggressions in school, and we see how these are affecting him. This seems quite familiar territory, but the book is very far from familiar.
With its focus on spirits and the main character being a medium, this was always going to be something a little different. Alongside Jake’s experiences, we are also given chapters by a character called Sawyer. This is a character who is receiving treatment for potential depression and who seems to have little support around him. We may be tempted to feel some sympathy for him, particularly later in the book when he experiences some deeply concerning events, but he was a character I found it hard to feel anything positive about as he is so skewed in his attitudes to others. As we also have Jake’s experience alongside we learn that Sawyer is – in the present – actually a ghost, a malevolent force who in life gunned down several of his peers, killed himself and now appears to be haunting those who survived.
Learning that Sawyer is determined to cause trouble, and Jake is going to be the vessel through which he achieves this, lent a much darker tone to the book than I expected. When we get into scenes of possession, I admit to being not only spooked by the events described but also very very confused. There were considerable sections where I really could not say with certainty what was happening.
I may be wholly off in my reading of this, but the spirit possession and the scenes towards the end seemed (at least they did at the time of reading) to be some form of symbolic representation of Jake’s struggle to come to terms with his self-identity. Perhaps this was not the case, but by the end I did feel Jake had found some clarity about himself and how he might be in the future.

 

‘Can’t Take That Away’ – Steven Salvatore

This was a book that I picked up out of curiosity and feeling the need to raise my own awareness. As a teacher I am, more than anything, struck by the difference this shows educators can make to the experience of those in their care and am horrified that such bigoted views as those expressed by Mr Jackson and Max could be tolerated and supported. It certainly made me think about how each of us can play our part in creating a community where everyone within it feels safe enough to be themselves.

The main character of Carey Parker is one that engaged and infuriated me in equal measure. I felt so angry on their behalf that they would have to endure some of the things they experienced, pride that they found the strength to be themselves and allow others to support them and utterly exasperated by their inability to be honest at times with those who meant so much to them.

The story is quite straightforward. Carey is genderqueer, and in a bid to regain some of the power they feel they have surrendered they audition for a part in their school musical. This sets up a quite remarkable chain of events culminating in a nationally-noticed protest about the discrimination evident in their school and a ‘treat’ of meeting their heroine Mariah Carey. Along the way we focus on their shifting friendships and some major life events involving their grandmother.

I’d love to say this book isn’t necessary, but that isn’t the case. It was informative, engaging in showing a young person coming of age and developing in confidence and certainly one to get people talking.

 

‘The City We Became’ – N.K. Jemisin

 

A fantasy like no other, in turns confusing and exhilarating.

In The City We Became we are asked to imagine a world under threat from a supernatural entity which invades its target, sucking the life out of it, consuming its essence and then taking its place in a new world. This could be seen as a metaphor for so many things, and though it did have me scratching my head a little initially I found myself engrossed in the fight.

These kinds of attacks have been going on for years. Nobody remembers the successful attacks as the city that is lost becomes nothing but a story. But this time is different because the city under attack is New York.

In this world, New York can be saved. It can be saved by the physical manifestations of the city – people who represent a borough of New York – working together to save the place they love.

When I started reading I really was not sure what to make of it. Manny, our first character introduced, remembers nothing of his life and can’t really place what’s happening to him. Though this makes it hard to gauge what’s happening, I felt it meant we learnt about the scenario as Manny did. Not really knowing New York I wouldn’t like to say whether the author has painted an accurate picture of these districts and cities, but it was a refreshing concept and highly entertaining.

‘The Girls I’ve Been’ – Tess Sharpe

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication in exchange for my thoughts. The Girls I’ve Been is a hard-hitting story exploring some awful crimes…but from the perspective of a young girl you can’t help but support (even though she’s had to do some awful things).

Nora O’Malley is waiting in line in her local bank to deposit some fund-raising money. She’s with her ex, Wes, and her girlfriend, Iris. Things are normal for them…until they are almost at the front of the line and the man in front of them pulls a gun. They find themselves caught up in a robbery – which would be a dramatic story of its own – but it becomes the perfect catalyst for us to learn the truth about Nora. She is not what her friends think.

During the course of the dramatic few hours they are held captive in the bank, Nora’s insight into the minds of the men holding them hostage reveals she’s got a lot more in common with them than you might think. Nora has been raised by her mother to con people…to read them carefully, to find the perfect mark, to exploit their weakness and then move on.

As their drama in the bank unfolds, we learn the truth about Nora. She has been many girls – each with a particular characteristic – in order to help her mother get the end result. But what we soon learn is that Nora is hiding a bigger secret…the last ‘mark’ was a seriously dangerous man, her mother fell in love with him and Nora did what she had to in order to escape.

There’s so much going on here, but it never felt messy as I was reading. The background to the characters was fascinating, and I really liked the dynamics between the main three characters. I can’t help but feel there’s more we could have been told, and the way the story ends really could be the start of a whole new story. Great fun!

 

‘One Last Stop’ – Casey McQuiston

 

I started this just after seeing a post on social media commenting on the fact that a member of the blogging community had expressed their dismay over this book and not been able to finish it…because it had lesbian characters. That, in a nutshell, seemed to sum up why such a book is needed.

This book had so much going on. While not all of the strands fully worked for me, it was a joyous read – and one that I could not help but feel happy to have read.
Our main character is a rather innocent young girl, who has moved to New York to try and finish college – and to move away from her mother’s attempts to get her to investigate the disappearance of a relative. She finds herself living in a rather strange apartment-share, with a mixed bunch of characters who quickly show themselves to be warm-hearted, caring and better than many families. She gets a job in a 24-hour diner, in spite of having no previous experience, and finds herself intrigued by the daily meet she has on the subway.

August is not particularly confident, but she is determined to try and make the best of situations she ends up in. When she finds herself meeting the same girl, Jane, on her daily commute it quickly becomes a crush she does not want to ignore.

This could have been the story and it would, probably, have worked. Seeing these two together was entertaining, and you cannot deny the attraction between them. However, we have a rather unusual twist…Jane is incapable of leaving the subway and – for reasons we are not quite sure of – actually lived in the 1970s.

I would heartily recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Red, White and Royal Blue though the tone/style is more reflective. As we drew towards the end I have to say I was nervous about reading on – just in case things didn’t quite go as expected.

‘The Lucky List’ – Rachel Lippincott

Emily always felt lucky, and the bond she had with her mum was special. Unfortunately, Emily’s mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her luck ran out and Emily has not felt the same since.

When we first meet Emily she alludes to some of this trauma, and as the story progresses we learn more about her life and how losing her mum has affected her. We see her trying to come to terms with things changing…but this is, primarily, a story about one girl trying to figure out who she is.

The action takes place over the summer holidays. We see Emily finding a list written by her mum of challenges she set herself at the same point in her life. Emily decides – with a little push from her new friend – to carry out these challenges. As she ticks them off she starts to feel a little freer…but the biggest challenge is whether she will be honest with herself.

Emily was a very sympathetically presented character. She didn’t always make the best decisions, but it was rewarding to see her develop and gain the confidence to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

‘All Our Hidden Gifts’ – Caroline O’Donoghue

 

Maeve Chambers, the youngest of five children, is a fairly ordinary sixteen year old girl in many ways. She feels acutely conscious that she’s not as clever as her siblings, not as interesting as her peers and has no idea what she wants to do. She is fizzing with a desire to do something but doesn’t know what that something could be.

When she gets into trouble in school she is given a detention which involves clearing out an abandoned storeroom. While there she finds an old Walkman and a pack of tarot cards. So begins her new interest…

Maeve teaches herself to read the tarot cards and finds herself to have something of a knack for it. She likes the feeling she gets when she does readings for her schoolmates. Unfortunately, after she does a reading for Lily – the girl who used to be her best friend until Maeve abandoned her in an attempt to garner popularity – things go horribly wrong. Lily disappears, and Maeve is convinced (because of the presence of a mysterious card known as the Housekeeper) that she is responsible.

The mystery of what happened to Lily is at the heart of the book but never really examined, and glossed over later. It is inextricably linked to the rise of an ultra-conservative Christian group sowing discord and hatred amongst the community. No one escapes this.

There was a lot going on here, and it wasn’t always clear which strand was driving the book. Interesting idea, and certainly topical, but I didn’t really feel engaged enough by Maeve to care too much what happened to her and the characters I was intrigued by were often sidelined just when things could have been interesting.

‘Madam’ – Phoebe Wynne

If something sounds too good to be true…it usually is. When Rose is offered a job teaching Classics at the prestigious Caldonbrae Hall she isn’t sure whether she’s qualified for the position. As a single young woman with an ailing mother and a father’s shameful secret she is, albeit unwittingly, proving herself to be the perfect candidate.

Arriving at the school she has many questions, but every attempt to learn more about her new role and the environment she has joined is stone-walled. That should have been her first clue that things weren’t quite what she thought.

When, only a couple of weeks into term, the entire upper sixth are taken to London and the students she does get to teach take more interest in baiting her than learning, that should have set some alarm bells ringing. In fact, from the outset there are so many instances of strange occurrences that anyone with half a brain would now this place is not what it seems. It takes Rose a considerable time to start to question what she’s walked into.

The staff and girls at Caldonbrae are unsettling. The wrongness of the situation is evident from early on, but we don’t find out what is happening until considerably later on. Attempts are made by many to justify the environment…and the classical allusions offer an interesting exploration of the ideas and characters.

There is a rather dramatic near-ending and a small glimmer of hope for Rose. Unfortunately, the detail slipped in at the end implies, quite bleakly, that when such behaviour is institutionalised as it is here, it will be nigh impossible to tackle. That’s depressing.

 

‘The Outrage’ – William Hussey

Imagine a world where to be gay or trans is a crime. You’re a degenerate and treated as sub-human by members of The Protectorate, the leaders of this new world charged with keeping order and keeping everyone safe. This is the awful world in which Gabe lives.

Our main character is forthright, angry and prone to making some really stupid choices. But he’s also loyal and loving, and determined to stick up for what he believes is right – no matter the cost.

Gabe and his friends – who charmingly call themselves The Rebels – know they are different, and that people are threatened by them. They want nothing more than to be themselves, to be proud of who they are and to live their lives.

Unfortunately, Gabe is also in love with Eric Dufresne, the son of someone high in the ranks of The Protectorate. When they are caught trying to remove a banned disc, showing that dangerous movie ‘Love, Simon’, things quickly escalate and what became an idealistic aim becomes a fight for survival.

Hussey creates a truly shocking environment-strangely not at all incredible given some of the situations and events we see happening around us. While the representation may not please everyone, it’s an evolving process to encourage people to consider their place, their personal beliefs and their role in history.

I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of this, and I’m so grateful to NetGalley for granting me early access.